‘Paper Towns’ movie review: Adaptation of John Green’s YA best-seller is smart …

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Paper Towns’ movie review: Adaptation of John Green’s YA best-seller is smart and soulful.

This film of author John Green’s 2008 YA bestseller may throw off the author’s legion of fans by stripping its story of some inessential elements, but it does so for the right reasons. In fact, Paper Towns is a movie that may remind those of us who have long left adolescence behind that there is such a thing as playing it too safe and that life’s mysteries are worth pursuing, at any age. The satisfying result is a little like “Breaking Away” (1979), along with a dash of John Hughes and an appreciation for life’s big and small transitions. Not a whole lot, at least in “Paper Towns,” a serenely bland adaptation of the John Green young-adult novel about a regular boy in love with the mystery girl next door.

His 2012 bestseller The Fault in Our Stars, about two teenagers who fall in love in a cancer support group, and its smash hit movie last year helped signal that teens were ready for big-hearted realism in their fiction after so many years of fantasy. Once upon a Hollywood time, when American adolescents were in the grip of social mores and studio censorship, nice guys wooed nice gals with boyish smiles, well-behaved hands and tamped-down desires. Perhaps not since John Hughes walked the earth has popular entertainment for teens credited them with a brain or devoted as much time to their fears and existential thoughts as it did to their comic drunken/sexual escapades.

This summer’s YA adaptation Me and Earl and the Dying Girl seemed to emerge from Green’s shadow, though it came overloaded with style and snark that many found off-putting (I didn’t). Although the low-stakes mystery that propels “Paper Towns” has little of that earlier film’s emotional pull — courtesy of two charismatic teens with cancer — this gentle coming-of-age story has its winning qualities.

Rather, it focuses on buttoned-down Quentin (Nat Wolff), who meets free-spirited new neighbour Margo (Cara Delevingne) at the age of 7 and remains beguiled by her for the next 11 years despite the fact they soon grow apart. If it’s a bit dull, and too dependent on a what-I-learned voice-over to make its points, it can still be applauded for resisting the temptation to overreach. It’s senior year of high school with the prom approaching as Margo shows up late one night at Quentin’s second-storey bedroom window and persuades him to embark on a risky mission that involves payback on a cheating boyfriend and some others. One night Margo, whose quirky, sorta bad-girl-ness is a fixation among her Orlando classmates, enlists “Q” to help her in some revenge pranks against pals and an ex-BF who’ve wronged her.

The narrator and audience proxy is Quentin Jacobson (Nat Wolff), Q for short, who opens up the story by explaining that he thinks everyone gets a miracle. Fault was unapologetically a weeper, but those hoping for more of the prized emotional currency known in today’s parlance as “feels” will come up short on Paper Towns. In his case that would be Margo Roth Spiegelman (the model Cara Delevingne), one of those women — guide, muse or free spirit, she comes in flavors as varied as Pocahontas, Zelda and Tinker Bell — who aid men on their journeys, metaphysical and literal. Are we locked into where we’re to be as adults? (And if so, how depressing is that?) And hey, how about a road trip with a goal that can’t possibly live up to expectations, but will take us to an entirely different place, self-image-wise?

But before she does, Margo expounds on the film’s central theme, the hazards of living in a world full of “paper towns” and people all too willing to settle for an existence of unquestioning and boring convention. The film’s darkest image (apart from one edgy left-field joke about the Confederate flag) is that of a divorced man who has committed suicide, and it appears briefly in the opening scenes to establish the character of the sort of person who would discover that body as a young girl.

While Quentin hangs out with slightly nerdy band-practice buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), Margo runs with a faster, more sophisticated crowd. Years later, after they’ve grown apart and are on the verge of graduating from high school, Q remains under Margo’s spell and she’s actually noticed him again. A self-styled “mystery girl,” Margo engineers disappearances and fosters tales of adventures as a band groupie and such, building her reputation into high school clique cred.

This is a brief, devilish hint of a world that’s nowhere to be found in the rest of the movie, but its survival from page to screen points to just how much power Green’s storytelling quirks hold over the filmmakers. A mildly notorious character in their community outside Orlando, Margo is also practiced at burnishing the stories that have made her such a captivating enigma. Along with Margo’s friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (a radiant Jaz Sinclair), he drives cross-country to a “paper town,” a city on a map rumored to be fictitious. Just before graduation, Margo disappears completely – after a cathartic night of minor vandalism with Quentin where she gleefully wreaks “ninja” revenge on the popular kids in her circle over perceived betrayals. With the help of his two best buds, Radar and Ben, and Margo’s ex-BFF, Lacey, Quentin is determined to track Margo down, following a trail of clues she’s left behind.

She’s played in the present day by model Cara Delevingne, whose take on the character is appropriately aloof — she seems to always be thinking of something (somewhere?) that no one else can see. Margo has always loved a mystery and this one involves folk balladeer Woody Guthrie, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and a highway atlas of North America.

And that’s exactly where she winds up after disappearing from her suburban Orlando town, leaving only her admirer: her lovestruck neighbor Quentin (the supremely likable Nat Wolff), who’s just shared one magical night with the girl of his dreams only to find her gone in the morning. It’s a passage that starts in childhood, when Margo and Q find a dead body (she creeps toward it while he recoils), and lurches forward in adolescence after Margo vanishes, leaving what look like clues in her wake. It’s ironic that Jake Schreier would be the director who brings this young-adult tale to life, considering that his best previous work, the underrated Robot & Frank, was an equally sympathetic treatment of an alienated, disaffected senior. Seeing Margo as an idea and ideal (and himself as a savior), Q seizes on the clues — scattered in books of poetry and in more prosaic locations — in a search of a woman who leads him straight to, as is often the case, himself.

Paper Towns (the title refers to places on maps that don’t really exist but are put there to identify counterfeits) is a well-told it’s-not-the-destination-but-the-journey tale. First, there’s the brisk opening third, in which Quentin slavishly follows Margo around the suburban darkness helping her exact revenge against her cheating ex-boyfriend. Wolff possesses a soulful, expressive quietude that fits Quentin’s careful, observant nature, while the raspy-voiced Delevingne banishes all doubt whether, when Margo goes on the lam, she’ll land anywhere but on a flashbulb-bathed Manhattan catwalk. The camaraderie between Q, Ben and Radar — all three outsiders from the popular cliques — is the best part of the film, with playful dialogue that has an authentic ring to it. Director Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank) propels us forward like Margo grabs Quentin, moving the action at an entertaining clip, with a minivans-and-manicured-lawns canvas that resembles Arcade Fire’s video for The Suburbs if you squint.

While Wolff is appealing, Austin Abrams gets the biggest laughs as the diminutive Ben, whose alleged sexual exploits with a girl from Saskatchewan are cheerfully derided by his pals, and Justice Smith is wonderfully likeable as the cerebral Radar. Comparing movies with their literary sources isn’t always useful, but it’s instructive that while the book validates Q’s ordinariness, the movie tries to obscure it.

For all the drama and comedy, nothing much really happens in it – other than the palpable maturation of nearly every character in less than two hours. Particularly intriguing in this passage is the sense that we don’t, and never fully could, understand the world the way Margo does — she’s found another plane of reality, she’s happy there, and she likes when ordinary folks like Quentin briefly stumble into it. This one is less so, with a cultural shadow that is not as long. “Fault” had more star power and bravery, but “Paper Towns” respects the characters and core audience just as much. Delevingne exudes an appropriately ethereal quality as Margo, a young woman determined to think and act outside the mainstream box of life, seeking truth in the margins. Still, it’s nearly impossible to resist Green’s cheering if perfunctory message about the importance of friendship, identity and the willingness to examine our most cherished wishful thinking — even at the ripe and restless age of 18.

In addition to doing a fine job matching the actors who play young Quentin and Margo with the present-day ones, Schreier also manages no small feat in making Orlando, Fla., a rather appealing setting. Paper towns — fake destinations cartographers put on maps to protect their copyright — are a fascinating myth for Green to play with, and they make a smart parallel for the film’s exploration of how people can turn into nonexistent ideals. Weber and Scott Neustadter, the same team behind Fault) feel the need to underline their message with multiple references to Moby Dick and constant reminders of Quentin’s naïveté.

One day the target audience will graduate to more subtle metaphors and crave more complex narratives, provided they recognize that films like Paper Towns are maps for their feels, rather than destinations. It’s a film that just may cause audiences of all ages to look beyond creature comforts and safe decisions to see life through fresh eyes, as a mystery worthy of constant exploration and reflection. She’s nice on the eyes, no doubt, but she doesn’t have the tools to take this underwritten screen role and make it hurt, and you spend a lot of time watching her Groucho brows hold steady over her sunburst smiles. That struggle is evident in the wall-to-wall pop songs that make it seem as if someone hired a D.J. to get the party going and, in particular, in the almost tic-like overuse of slow motion, a stylistic cliché that, intentionally or not, suggests Q has already begun packaging these moments of modest excitement into memories as they happen.

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